Bloody Mama

Joseph McBride
1970 Film quarterly  
Bloody Mama. Roger Corman's movies are amoral, trashy and frankly irresponsible. His last major picture, The St. Valentine's Day Massacre, had the misfortune of opening in New York in the same week and on the same block as Bonnie and Clyde. Since it obviously lacked those "redeeming social values" which made Penn's film acceptable to the queasy (and made a few critics wish Penn had not played down the cruelty of his heroes), the reviewers jumped on Corman to justify Penn. But St. Valentine's
more » ... St. Valentine's Day was a pretty good movie-a hard, fast, vulgar lampoon of gangster mythology. Corman's gangsters are not touching romantics, and the violence is not lyrical. Bloody Mama, a comedy about Kate (Ma) Barker and her incestuous boys, is so crude that it should send Judith Crist and Co. into catatonic shock. From the opening sequence of the young Kate being gang-raped by her father and brothers ("Blood is thicker'n water") to the sublime bad taste of the final shot, Corman takes us straight into L'il Abner America, presenting the most incredible grotesquerie with a straight face. He uses social violence for black humor, much as Luis Bufiuel did in his documentary about Spain, Las Hurdes, with its disinterested pose ("Voici un autre cretin ..."). Bufiuel's humor, though, is a medium for despair, not whimsy. Corman does, surprisingly, come up with a few moving moments-a girl shying away from one of the sons after he hesistantly reveals that he's a dope addict, or Kate watching blearily as her boys are shot to death, one by one, and Herman blows his head off-but these are only interludes in the burlesque. Corman's early movies are amusing mostly for their rough brio and their fey attitude toward plot, his later ones for their queer visual and histrionic extravagances. The cast of Bloody Mama makes a splendid bunch of yahoos, and the visuals harken back to the slapdash barbarism of the Attack of the Crab Monsters period. Shelley Winters is relatively restrained as Ma-God knows what she could have done with the role-and Bruce Dern, Don Stroud, Diane Varsi and Pat Hingle (as a wealthy hostage who wins the boys' respect) are pleasant to watch. The most interesting character, though, is Robert DeNiro's addict, compulsively pulling on Baby Ruth bars and emitting defenselessness. The objection will be made that Corman is as brutal as his subject. Granted. But remember what Henry Miller once said: "I am for obscenity
doi:10.2307/1210546 fatcat:3apw56phhfhqfdm5q23hqmamny